August 10, 2017

6 Ways Technology May Impact Workforce Diversity & Inclusion

When (former) Google employee James Damore was fired earlier this month after distributing a memo charging the company with intolerance towards ideological conservatives, it was made clear — if it wasn’t already–that that diversity and inclusion policies are based on collective narratives. Narratives are our justifying accounts for why we believe what we do, and they unfold in our speech, behavior and policies.

The way Damore tells it, the uneven gender and racial distribution in technology firms comes down to ‘natural’ or biological differences–and this is the most foundational justification there is. But scientific claims don’t typically end a discussion; rather, they are part of it.

Indeed, if there is any scientific story emerging about human characteristics, it is that  we are emergent, complex and singular creatures whose patterns of behavior are the specific result of our various forms of identification, nature, nurture and experiences.

In one sense, this presents a baffling conundrum for executive leaders, human resources managers and policy makers.

On the other, we are entering an era of extreme customization. If Amazon can anticipate my consumer desires on the basis of an algorithm, can we not fashion more complex algorithms that better take into account the specific contours of our identities?

As both an analogy and an actual technology, could we extend the concept of personalization of consumer choices to personalization of people?  This would be coming around to the original humanist proposition that we are each distinct and particular, but no matter, why don’t we hire the way we market? For each potential hire, employers could consider not only who we are on the basis of existing categories of gender and race, but the indivisible ways that each of us filters and articulates our own experience of who we are and what that means?

In the meantime, the technological and environmental changes that are proving so disruptive in other facets of our lives may also impact our understanding of diversity in the not-so-distant future.  Currently, sex, ethnicity, immigrant status, disability and perhaps cognitive type are the focus of most diversity and inclusion discourse.  Yet other changes are afoot that may alter or expand our understanding of what diversity means, and which human traits require protection or inclusion in the workplace. Here are a few.

(1) Demographic changes

The available labor pool provides the foundation for diversity considerations. These are regularly charted in the United States by the Department of Labor. We are widely aware of some trends, such as  an expected decline in the entire labor force over the next thirty years, as Americans age and fertility rates go down.  The proportion of  whites in the labor force is also known to be declining.

However, new demographic patterns may produce new forms of identity and areas of discrimination.  For example, declining mobility among rural, poorer workers is creating a distinct urban / rural divide (Wall Street Journal analysis, requires subscription).  The effects of climate change on different regions of the United States could further sharpen  these existing divides or cut them in different ways, making geographic diversity  a more pointed issue.

(2) Genetic modification

In the last several years, researchers have figured out how to successfully modify human embryos’ genetic material. Chinese scientists modified a human embryo over a year ago. This summer, American researchers followed suit.  Their first objective is to eliminate rare genetic diseases. Although many scientists believe that hyperbolic statements about ‘designer babies’ are just that–unlikely exaggerations, even the most skeptical believe there is a serious need to discuss the ethics of various interventions that could lead to social inequalities because they are perceived as enhancements.

The endurance of this discussions suggests that attempted enhancements are on the horizon.  We may one day be required to think about which traits we collectively value and where we draw lines between difference, disability, and also super-ability. These may be policymakers’ and parents’ questions in the first instance, but they will become everyone’s in time.

Those who are interested in exploring existing discussions could look to the deaf community,  and autism and Downs syndrome advocates to find sophisticated discussions about how to think about human disability, ability, skills and worth.  The potential ability to produce ‘enhanced’ children with more powerful abilities or intelligence would directly cut across our understanding of fairness and equal opportunity.

Imagine a day when Human Resources executives must extend affirmative action principles to all of us who have not arrived in the world with genetic enhancements produced at the embryonic stage.

(3) Body-hacking

What we consider outliers or fringe identities often illuminate the nature of the mainstream. Today, we think of difference in terms of visually available ethnic and gender cues. But perhaps there are many more cues on offer about what we are and can be. Body hackers are a small but robust movement of people who use prosthetics, implants or other devices to transform their bodies. The recent news that a company in Wisconsin has offered employees the opportunity to get ‘chipped’ with an implanted RFID transmitter that lets them use their fingers to open passcodes for copy machines and unlock doors is not new to body hackers, who have been chipping for years.  They are likely to continue to be ahead of the rest of us as technologies, such as 3D printing, small scale biological experimentation, tattooing, and implantation become DIY activities.  These will open opportunities for people to make changes they feel enhance their bodies’ looks and behavior.

Body hackers raise various diversity and inclusion issues. Their ability to customize their bodies may compel all of us to think about individuality and our collective acceptance of human difference.  We are already doing this in the realm of gender as a society, as we collectively accept a broader range of expressions of gender identity than in the past.

Specific forms of augmentation or enhancement could raise particular issues for hiring and inclusion. What is a permissible form of self-improvement and does it supersede what we perceive as natural abilities? Will an employer pay for or subsidize enhancements that would increase someone’s employability the way they would pay for skills training today?

(4) Automation & the shifting workplace context 

The workplace is itself changing because of automation.  Current estimates of how much unemployment may eliminate entire jobs or classes of skills reach over 50% in some contexts. (If you are interested, I discussed how reasonable these predications are in a recent interview on CGTN’s Global Business program.)

New kinds of workplaces will produce new contexts for diversity and inclusion.  Consider the freelancer or contract work model, such as Uber’s.  The distributed workforce has particular issues related to diversity because they may need to develop trust and congenial working styles using different cues than those working face-to-face. There is already a large body of research on managing cultural differences among distributed teams to draw on as a resource.

The extreme transparency of the contemporary workplace means that companies should be aware that the value of diversity and inclusion may be on customer and stakeholder minds, even if it is not a pressing issue in the day-to-day life of a company.

(5) Technology-driven transparency

This is a transparent world.  One day the word “leak” will disappear because we will  understand that all information that touches a digital channel is always already possibly public. As more of us are also online, this gives citizen stakeholders a powerful role in pressuring organizations to accede to our ideas about what diversity and inclusiveness looks like.

This is a complex development. Although public pressure holds the potential to be more democratic, it can be the case that the loudest voices, rather than the most insightful or informed, are best heard.  The stakeholder pool, from the point of view of human resources or organizational leadership, extends beyond investors and customers to pretty much everyone, in a transparent environment.

(6) Artificial intelligence and inclusive algorithms

Digital marketing experts predict that  artificial intelligence will drive meaningful advances in marketing and customer relationship management automation.  Which means that most of us will be talking to even more machines in our lives as consumers in the near future.

Automated systems, of course, customize their responses to us by using our past habits and our group characteristics to decide who we are and what we need.  They use the same categories that employers and governments to sort us out — our gender, ethnicity,  and age group, for example.  They are as a result part of the system of identification and diversity in their predictions about who we are, and have a role to play in generating options for us to be specifically ourselves.

We should all challenge technology designers and programmers to be aware of their important role, and to consider how automation can play a productive role in encouraging us to express and explore our individuality, rather than reifying stereotypes based on our ethnic or gender roles.


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